Stephen King’s first horror-novel, 1974’s Carrie, was adapted by Brian De Palma two years later with surprise success and there began something of a snowball effect. The novel’s themes of teenage outcast, religious fundamentalism, along with the supernatural struck a chord. King was soon seen as a sure-bet for source material; other notable directors to have lent their hand are David Cronenberg, Stanley Kubrick, Rob Reiner and Tobe Hooper. Due to King’s quick popularity and his prolificness, consequently, the quality hasn’t always matched the quantity. King may have more individual texts put to film than William Shakespeare, but still, IMDb’s top rated film of all time remains The Shawshank Redemption (1994). Whilst that movie represents the peoples choice, other king movies have received critical praise, but haven’t found such a wide audience. The over-generalisation continues to circulate that Stephen King movies are generally bad. Here are 13 different shades of King on film (movies, not mini-series) to help break (or support) that myth.
Children Of The Corn 3: Urban Harvest (1995)
One of many sequels to a movie based on a story in 1978’s Night Shift, of which neither were dazzling to begin with; this is by no means a cinematic tour-de-force. Still, for what it is; a product of the boom in 90’s B-horror-sequels, it ambitiously attempts a moderately coherent plot with moderate acting. The deliciously absurd idea of a boy growing demonic corn in the city and the film’s elaborately gruesome gore makes COTC3 the best in an over-extended series.
The Lawnmower Man (1992)
Pierce Brosnan uses village idiot (Jeff Fahey) as his computer-science guinea pig and you know this can’t end well. Dated special-effects which were probably, well, special at the time are counteracted by Fahey’s good portrayal. Don’t expect anything resembling the odd story in King’s Night Shift (he sued the studio and won) and do try to avoid the director’s-cut which bungles the film with clumsy under-developed scenes.
Silver Bullet (1985)
Kids film or not? Who cares with its small-town whodunit atmosphere, as well as the building tension that the boy in the wheelchair (Corey Haim) is soon gonna’ get it! The 80s was full of light werewolf vehicles and whilst this isn’t as good as some of them, it does provide more intrigue than Teen Wolf. Adaptation of King’s illustrated Cycle of The Werewolf (1983).
The Dead Zone (1983)
Cronenberg feels lazy here and we have a charismatic Christopher Walken perhaps being a bit too melodramatic as fortune-teller, not to mention much of the cast. King’s original text (1979) is essentially a love tragedy and his most satisfying novel, here it’s a truncated mess. That said, Martin Sheen convincingly plays the nasty-piece-of-work political nightmare that is Greg Stillson; Croneneberg is still Cronenberg and Walken is Walken, and The Dead Zone does manage to work on a fairly satisfying level, but make sure to read the book.
If this weren’t a King novel (1981), it’s unlikely it would have ever seen a camera lens. The prose is more of a study on communication breakdown and consequential complacency, as opposed to a deranged St. Bernard. The film tries too hard to establish these bad-relations, but the audience gets fidgety waiting to see domestic heroine (Dee Wallace) slog it out with the mutt. Jaws came up for a pound of flesh more than this dog barked, but then, finally, Wallace acts her ass off. During the car entrapment sequence you wholeheartedly route for her in battle against the matted mess that is now Cujo. The ending in the novel was poignant, but would have been a downer here.
Poor Tanya (Mädchen Amick) thinks she’s met a nice boy in Charles Brady (Brian Krause), but it turns out he’s a shapeshifting nightmare, along with his all-too-close mother (Alice Krige). Doh. If you can embrace its ridiculous violence (death by corn on the cob) it’s a fun MTV-gen joyride. Without usual labyrinthine King sub-plots, this originally unpublished story makes for a fun and tight homage to Cat People with surprisingly good morphing effects. Look out for King’s awkwardly funny cameo.
Pet Sematary (1989)
Mary Lambert’s treatment of King’s dark novel (1983) is brutal. The cinematography is little to write home about, but the film negates any of its misgivings with faithful intrigue and the unrelenting grotesque; many remember the sub-plot element of disfigured sister Zelda more than anything. King wrote the script too and no one holds any punches in this nightmare lullaby of a homage to Frankenstein. A remake is in the works, for better or worse.
Hearts In Atlantis (2001)
Now this is a quiet little surprise and probably the last decent King adaptation, thus far. It’s another SK coming-of-age tale, piecemealed from stories in the 1999 collection of the same name, but there isn’t an evil clown or River Phoenix anywhere in sight. Actually, this time we settle for Anthony Hopkins as a kindly old man with some secrets and a little telepathy. This really is more of a drama though and all the acting is superb as is the tasteful recreation of circa 1960. This one failed at the box office, but then who cares?
The Green Mile (1999)
And they did it again – team Darabont and King make another prison drama, this time with more of a supernatural bouquet. Tom Hanks is on hand to ground the story, but it plays even more off the heart-strings than The Shawshank Redemption. The acting is good, but this already 3 hour-plus movie, ultimately jettisons some good detail from the serial novel (1996). King is back to making black people mystical again, well of course.
Dolores Claiborne (1995)
This 1992 novel would have probably made a good stage play as well as a good film, especially as much of the dialogue is between the two characters of mother and daughter (Kathy Bates, Jennifer Jason Leigh). The layers of secrets here run deep, but the flashbacks attempting to uncover them actually work well and Bate’s effortlessly pulls off the younger and older self. Judy Parfitt’s performance as the formidable employer is very engaging too. Apparently, King’s quasi-feminist bout of writing wasn’t his most popular and this film didn’t seem to find much of an audience. Too bad, it’s broody, keeps you guessing and is one of King’s better adaptations.
The similarities between this and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) are astounding. This is more precise however, even though both seemingly comment on fame, obsession and mental-illness. What makes this one of King’s best adaptations is the lack of any dead scenes by Rob Reiner, the start-stop acting and rhythm of the film in general, and of course Kathy Bate’s re-appropriation of character Annie Wilkes. The humour which exists in such an odd scenario is also profoundly dark. Possibly bolder than King’s 1987 novel, although the extracts from Paul Sheldon’s Misery’s Return are amusing.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
What can be said? It’s just good storytelling and it far surpasses the novella from 1982’s Different Seasons. Tim Robbins is a stroke of genius playing the wrongly imprisoned Andy Dufresne and we are taken on his journey of humility and hope. The extraordinary element is of course the prison break, but the film as a whole doesn’t pull any transparent tricks and is the more engaging for it. The film’s popular longevity suggests you just need a good story with good characters, it’s just an old-fashioned sort of a film.
All De Palma’s signatures are here, but it’s probably one of his more original films as he’s not just riffing on Hitchcock all the time (Dressed To Kill, Blow Out) or making a gangster vehicle. Him and King both got their break with this and Carrie is an engaging tale. You spend most of the film routing for poor Carrie White (played wonderfully by Sissy Spacek) just like many of the other characters do, then you watch in sheer horror as her crown falls. Then of course there is the double shocker to contend with after. Nancy Allen is also great as the bitch and Piper Laurie excelled herself. Some of the sequences could be criticized as being dated, but this was surely De Palma’s humorous attempt to throw some light into a dark corner.
The Shining (1980)
Jack Nicholson gets all cartoony in this visual homage to ghost stories. There is some nice camera work as well as suspect character motivations.
Stand by Me (1986)
Some boys go on a journey to find a dead body, there is some 60’s music and lots of adolescent humour. The End.
The Mist (2007)
Frank Darabont gives us bad CGI.